“I’m not religious but if I were then I would be Buddhist”. If I had a pound for every time I heard someone saying this then…well…let’s just say it would be one way to fund my travels! I do get where people are coming from though. Buddhism enjoys a rare position of privilege among world religions; a belief system that seems to be both inoffensive and, in some ways, desirable to a lot of people. For me, however, the interest in Buddhism comes less from a “spiritual” perspective and more from one that relates to my health. As someone who is so often immersed in a fug of depression and anxiety, I’m intrigued by a philosophy that promotes mental well-being. If I could learn to be more zen, could I start to understand what it means to be happy? So when I found myself in Chiang Mai for two weeks, I decided to take advantage of monk chat to see if I could discover the secret to serenity.
What’s monk chat? Well, it’s exactly that – a chat with a monk. I’ve always observed Buddhist monks from a bit of a distance and, to be honest, I suppose I always thought of them of slightly….separate. I guess I figured they were entirely focused on living life on a higher plane and wouldn’t be bothered with us hoi polloi. Yet on my very first day in Chiang Mai, a charming historical town in northern Thailand, I spotted a sign outside one of the many Buddhist temples advertising “monk chat” and was immediately intrigued. Turns out that holding a monk chat is a great way for the younger monks both to learn English and to find out a little bit about life beyond the temple. And for us tourists, it’s a wonderful opportunity to meet with a person who is living a completely different life to our own. Surely that’s one of the very best things about travel…
A quick bit of research online told me that the monks at Wat Chedi Luang host monk chats every day from 9am-6pm. As this is one of the largest and most popular temples in town, I figured I should be able to find someone willing to talk to me. When I got there, however, I wasn’t so sure. A number of tables were set up in a shaded courtyard but they were all empty except for one, where a monk was already in the midst of an animated discussion with a bunch of tourists. Not feeling confident enough to join them, I sat awkwardly at an empty table and waited in the hope that a passing monk would take pity on me. Eventually I gave up, wandered around the temple a bit more and when I returned a few more monks had sat down in the designated “monk chat area”. I had been hoping for a one-to-one conversation as I felt a bit shy, but monk chat is a popular pastime in Chiang Mai so you will have to share your monk!
As it happens, sharing your monk is no bad thing because the other people at the table will ask questions that you probably won’t have thought of. And the diversity of nationalities and backgrounds means that the conversation is never going to be dull. Our monk was 23 years old, earnest and quietly spoken but very happy to answer all of our questions, which ranged from “what do you do every day?” to “what does happiness mean?”. He became a monk at the age of 12 – not because of any spiritual calling or because it offered the opportunity for a better education but, as per 12 year olds everywhere, because his friend did it. However, he found that he really enjoys the lifestyle and the sense of contentment that it gives him, despite the 5am starts! Maybe there’s something to be said for not having a lie-in?
I was keen to know if there was some kind of Buddhist secret to a life of contentment – that didn’t involve getting up at the crack of dawn. As with most things, it’s something that the brain needs a little time to get to grips with. Buddhists believe that nothing is permanent, therefore we should all try to live in the moment. No-one knows what’s going to happen tomorrow or even in the next 5 minutes. I could get hit by a bus! So we should live each day like its our last, appreciating what we have in each moment. What’s more, the feeling of true happiness is something that only comes from within us. If we rely on outside influences, such as a flashy car or the approval of others, we risk losing these because…nothing is permanent. We should rely only on ourselves for our own happiness. This all makes perfect sense and sounds simple enough in theory. Remembering to think in this way every day, especially when the chips are down, is where the challenge lies.
To help achieve this, Buddhist monks practise meditation every day. They find that it gives us greater control over both our thoughts and our words. Our monk admitted that he finds meditation hard, even after all these years, which made me feel instantly better about my own perpetually wandering mind. However he believes that, with practice, meditation teaches us how to think first and take our time before saying or doing something that we might regret. The Buddhist secret to happiness is clearly not one that comes easily but takes a little bit of training – just like any other ability.
The rest of our monk chat was spent discussing the day-to-day life of a Buddhist monk. The 5am start leads straight into chanting and meditation. The monks then head into the town to collect alms. As monks are not allowed to have money they are reliant on the kindness of other people. It’s traditional for Buddhists to give alms – or charitable donations of food – to the monks each day as a way of earning “merit”. This helps to bring them one step closer to nirvana or total enlightenment (not the band). Nirvana is a state where nothing exists and where there are no pesky emotions to distract or torment us, only peace and contentment. Which, I have to say, sounds pretty good to me! Once the monks have collected enough, they return to the temple for a shared breakfast together. The rest of the day is spent studying a range of different subjects until 6pm when it’s time for more chanting and meditation. They they have free time before going to bed at around 10pm.
I left the monk chat feeling incredibly uplifted. What our monk had said about happiness really resonated with me and I practically floated away from the table. “I can do this”, I told myself, “I can be zen and I can be calm and content.” And then…as if to prove that nothing is permanent, it all went horribly wrong. As I lifted my camera to take a photo of the monk chat area, an elderly American man, resplendent in socks and sandals, stormed over to me and loudly declared “THAT’S NOT POLITE”. With the wrong end of the stick firmly in place, he then proceeded to berate me about photographing the monks without permission, feeling the need to inform me that “they’re not animals”. Despite trying to explain what I was doing and why – and telling him that I wasn’t actually trying to sneak a stealth photo of a monk – he continued to fulminate at maximum volume, resulting in me feeling totally riled up for the rest of the day. And the next day. And the next. And also a little bit as I’m writing this several months later. So much for the secret to serenity!
What else to do in Chiang Mai:
Visit the Sunday Night Market for amazing food and local crafts – if you’re not there on a Sunday then there are also little night markets around each of the gates to the old city.
Feed and bathe some elephants. There are trips to several ethical sanctuaries that can be booked from town.
Enjoy a Chang Beer on the roof terrace of John’s Place.
Explore the Nimmanahaeminda area and try the fantastic Lanna food at Tong Tem Toh.
Watch Thai boxing.
Travel up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep for views across the town.
Don’t do what I did:
Get into an argument with a stranger in a temple.